Beep Baseball a Hit in Cooperstown

Written by: Bruce Markusen

Tony Conigliaro once played major league baseball while being almost completely blind in one eye – the result of a 1967 beanball that nearly ended his career. Somehow, “Tony C.” managed to hit 36 home runs only three years later, despite the loss of most of his vision in his left eye. It remains one of the most remarkable hitting accomplishments in the game’s history. But what about players who are visually impaired to the point that they cannot see with either eye? For those players, some of whom recently visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the National Beep Baseball Association provides a realistic option. Beep Baseball originated in 1964, when Charlie Fairbanks, an engineer with a telephone company, implanted a beeping device in a softball as a way of encouraging blind players to become involved in recreational activities. Eleven years later, Beep Baseball enthusiasts formed the National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA) in Chicago. Ever since, the league has played a full schedule of games that begins in the spring and ends in August. One of the teams in the NBBA is the Boston Renegades, who visited the Hall of Fame on Aug. 2. The Renegades were also joined by a rival player, Brandon Chesser, a member of the league’s defending champions, the Austin Blackhawks. A Blackhawks jersey, a beep ball, and a blindfold are all on exhibit in the Museum’s Today’s Game exhibit, located on the second floor.

Fresh off their fifth-place finish in the NBBA World Series, the Renegades participated in a program in the Hall of Fame Library’s Bullpen Theater, where they explained how Beep Baseball works and showed a clip from the award-winning documentary, The Renegades: A Beep Ball Story.

The Rules of Beep Baseball

As some of the Renegades players and coaches explained to a near capacity crowd in the Bullpen Theater, the rules of beep baseball are relatively simple, but also quite distinct from the game that most visitors to the Hall of Fame follow with such passion. Here is a quick summary:

*Each games involves a 16-inch softball that contains a noisemaking “beep.” When a pin is pulled from the ball, the beeping noise begins, allowing players to better follow the ball.

*All players wear blindfolds. While some players are completely blind, others have very limited sight capabilities. The blindfolds serve as an equalizer, a fair way to level the playing field, insuring that all players are essentially sightless when playing the game.

*The pitchers, who are the only players on the field not visually impaired, throw the ball from 20 feet away. Pitchers are teammates of the hitters, so they actually try to groove each pitch toward the same spot, so as to maximize the hitter’s rate of success.

When I play Beep Baseball, I feel like I’m leaving my cane on the bench.

Guy Zucarello, Boston Renegades

As Bryan Grillo, a volunteer coach with the Renegades, explained to the Hall of Fame audience, pitchers also use verbal cues as a way of guiding the hitter. “Pitchers use a verbal cadence so as to help the hitter make contact,” said Grillo. “This is essential for the batter. Just relying on the sound from the ball isn’t enough.” As part of that cadence, the pitcher says “ready” just prior to releasing the ball and then says “pitch” at the moment the ball is released.

*Each hitter has up to four strikes, instead of the usual three. When a hitter makes contact, he then runs to one of two “goals,” which are located to the left and right of where the first and third base bags would normally be. If the batter reaches one of the two designated goals before the fielding team gains control of the ball, a run is tallied for the offensive team. If the fielding team controls the ball before the batter reaches the goal, the batter is considered out. As in regular baseball, each team receives three outs before having to take its defensive position in the field.

While much of the focus of Beep Ball is the relationship between the pitcher and the hitter, the defensive players also take on a critical role. As Grillo explained, each team is allowed to have six players at positions in the field. They are are aided by sighted spotters, who can use one-word calls to give the fielders clues as to where the batted ball is located. Guided by the spotters and the beeping sound of the ball, defenders then try to close in on the ball, knocking it down before gaining control of it.

Gaining Notoriety

Beep Baseball has gained a popular following in recent years. As Renegades player Guy Zucarello pointed out on Sunday, the team was once invited to Boston’s Fenway Park to participate in a pre-game ceremony. The 2006 appearance brought national attention to the Renegades, not to mention the entire NBBA.

For the players involved, the attention is nice, but not really the number one priority. The players simply want the opportunity to play the game that they love. “When I play Beep Baseball,” Zucarello said, “I feel like I’m leaving my cane on the bench.”

That goal might have once seemed unachievable, but Beep Baseball makes it all possible. As Brandon Chesser of the Blackhawks told the Hall of Fame audience on Sunday: “This sport is awesome.”

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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